Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.comWith the simple words “of” “course” and “me,” Chris Johnson ignited the web while a guest on NFL.com’s Dave Dameshek Podcast by suggesting that he could beat Mike Vick in a footrace.
A footrace that Vick supposedly won a year ago against the future 2013 rushing champion LeSean McCoy.
While Johnson might not be getting younger, his 40 time still tops the NFL Combine’s fastest. But how effective can be really be for the Jets this season?
Kind words, but realistic or the encouragement of his offensive coach? What about what he can do for the Jets this season? Johnson may have had a messy separation from the Tennessee Titans, but is he washed up as many critics claim?
“I still think he’s one of the best running backs in the league,” former Jet (and Hall of Fame running back) Curtis Martin in the past week. “I’ll say this: He has as much talent as anyone in the league … he’s unique because, at any moment, he can score.”
While the 2013 NFL draft class of running backs might end up proving to be one of the stronger groups in the last decade, this year’s crop seems to be coming into the league with less fanfare and saw the Jets wisely invest in a proven commodity for an offense in dire needs of upgrades. But is it enough to help the Jets and their offense that has been reliant on the run, especially with a young quarterback of questionable pedigree leading the group during all of head coach Rex Ryan’s tenure with the Jets?
In the NFL when opponents know to gameplan for a particular strength of another team, there’s two main ways for that team to deal with what that opponent might bring. The first is to use deception to mask aspects of the team’s strength. A second, is that the team can double down on that strength daring teams to beat them.
This offseason the Jets doubled down by signing Chris Johnson on a long-known emphasis of Rex Ryan’s Jets; the team’s running attack. Under Rex Ryan, the Jets have long espoused the importance of a running game. The defensive-minded coach knows that come December (and January) passing attacks can be relied on less in the intense cold. Since Rex Ryan took over the team, there’s only been one year in which the Jets didn’t finish somewhere in the top ten in rushing attempts. That year? 2011, the same year in which the team – and their quarterback – began coming apart at the seams after the early success of the Ryan-Sanchez era.
Over the last two years, Bilal Powell has proven competent mortar to the running back position - filling in wherever necessary. Powell is a jack-of-all-trades; able to either play the perimeter and catch the ball out of the backfield or run between the tackles. Last year, once healthy Chris Ivory gave the Jets a punishing, though predictable attack against opposing interiors. Ivory continued in the tradition that Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene had filled.
What the Jets lacked in 2013 was a blazingly fast and dynamic running back that could burn a defense on any play should teams put less than eight in the box. During free agency, the Jets were known to be keeping their attention on dynamic players in free agency and were clearly waiting out the Chris Johnson situation and investing $4 million a year in 2014 to bring the former Titan to their offense.
Last season, Johnson caught 42 passes, equal to all the team’s halfbacks (Powell – 36, Ivory -2 , Green – 2, Goodson – 2) and did so for almost 50 more yards. Do the Jets think that he’ll be worth the investment? Rich Cimini of ESPN NY wrote about Chris Johnson this past week:
Anticipating his release, the Jets did a lot of tape study on Johnson. What they saw was a still-gifted back who was restricted by a bum knee and a mediocre offensive line in Tennessee. Doctors took care of the knee, repairing a torn meniscus with an arthroscopic procedure in January. Now it’ll be up to the Jets’ line to take care of the blocking.
Johnson’s demonstrated durability make the gamble on his knee an educated one for the Jets.
“That guy, he’s one of the best,” former teammate and Titans cornerback Jason McCourty told ESPN New York last week. “A lot of people have talked about how he’s lost it. I think he’ll get out there and prove he hasn’t lost a step and can still play.”
Calling the Tennessee offensive line mediocre might be kind to Tennessee, but it’s insult to mediocrity. Football Outsiders ranked the Titans run blocking 19th in 2013, 31st in 2012, 32nd in 2011 and 31st in 2010. The Titans are finally addressing the long-term nature of the group, but it has been one of the league’s worst lines dating back four years and yet Johnson has stayed in the lineup posting 1,000 yard seasons each year.
If the run blocking of Johnson’s offensive line is what’s being measured (and he has played for one of the league’s worst units) then moving to the Jets would almost assuredly be an upgrade for Johnson using the concept of regression to the mean; Johnson should be more effective and productive with a better run-blocking unit ahead of him. LaDainian Tomlinson experienced a similar short-lived boost to his play when he came to New York and it is fair to assume that Johnson could too.
Johnson must be sensing the same thing and thinks his superior skills coupled with the line ahead of him will lead to good things.
“Once the season starts and once we’re playing and I’m doing my thing, I’m pretty sure if I’m making plays they’re going to want to keep handing the ball off to me,” Johnson told NFL.com’s Around the League last Tuesday. “If they want me to continue making plays, I’m pretty sure I can’t do that if I’m on the sideline.”
In 2013, Johnson ranked third in terms of how many times opponents stacked the box with eight man fronts. An incredible statistic when you consider the weakness of the Titans offensive line. Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore were the only two players to see more eight man fronts.
This bodes well for Johnson’s foray with the Jets, but also for the team’s quarterback. With Johnson on the field, defenses will be forced to pay attention to him and to bring one of their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, which will in turn make life easier for Geno Smith. With an extra safety in the box, Smith will (1) have a sure-handed and dynamic plamaker on dump-offs should the play break down (2) have a better chance at scrambling for yards provided he keeps track of the box safety and (3) gain better looks for his receivers with a weakened zone coverage.
The last point is very important for Eric Decker. Many consider Decker a good receiver, but not a great one. Pulling an extra coverage man out of the secondary means that the Jets might be that much more likely to scheme plays in which he or his WR2 can see more single coverage. The boost Chris Johnson provides to the running attack is the primary benefit, but if Smith can do a better job at reading the play, or use his feet to buy time for his receivers, Geno’s passing game could be much improved.